Ernest Mandel yesterday and today

Image_Marcio Costa


Commentary on the relevance of the economic work of the Trotskyist politician and theorist

A quarter of a century after Ernest Mandel's death (July 20, 1995), this article is not intended as a tribute. In the spirit of living Marxism, as was yours, we will limit ourselves rather to showing how his economic writings remain current and to outlining the questions, past or present, that they raise.(1)

The spread of Marxism

Mandel played a key role in propagating a Marxism freed from the false Stalinist gloss, always concerned with establishing a link between economic analysis and militant action. His first major contribution was the Treatise on Marxist Economics, published in 1962. This synthesis had wide international diffusion and contributed to the renewal of a living Marxism, eager to integrate the latest events.

Chapter XI on periodic crises is a clear example of this: Mandel already outlines there a synthesis between theories based on underconsumption and disproportionality, referring to the contributions of economists such as Harrod, Kuznets, Samuelson, Goodwin, Kalecki and Joan Robinson. Although he considers them "oversimplified", he believes that "they nevertheless constitute important material".

In 1963, Mandel gave a series of lectures during a training weekend organized by the Parisian Federation of the PSU (Parti Socialiste Unifié). These lectures resulted in a booklet, “Initiation to Marxist Economic Theory”, which will be reprinted several times. Although obviously deserving of updating, this is a remarkable text, extremely pedagogical and illustrative of Mandel's constant concern to build bridges between the most demanding theory and the formation of activists.

In 1967, Mandel published “The Formation of Economic Thought by Karl Marx”. One of the main aims of this book was to make known one of Marx's fundamental works – the Grundrisse – even before the first French translation, by Roger Dangeville, was published. In particular, you should read the chapter on the “dialectic of working time and free time”, which is a perfect introduction to the topic of reducing working time.

It is thus clear that Mandel sought to spread Marx's economic thought, with the constant aim of proposing a non-dogmatic version of it. Therefore, it was not by chance that he was asked to write the preface to the English edition of “Capital” (Penguin), which allows us to measure Mandel's notoriety in the Anglo-Saxon world. Unfortunately, these introductions to the three books of “O Capital” were not published in French, although they were translated into Spanish and collected in a book entitled “O Capital. One Hundred Years of Controversies Surrounding the Work of Karl Marx" which is an excellent introduction to Marx's masterpiece.

 The problem of "transformation"

We can, for example, cite a passage devoted to the problem of transforming values ​​into prices. This theoretical problem is important because it opened the door to a critique of Marx's theory of value: there would be an insurmountable contradiction between Book I of Capital (values ​​are proportional to labor costs) and Book III (prices are proportional to the capital advanced).

Mandel's answer consists of refuting the fundamental hypothesis of Marx's critics according to which the production prices of inputs (what goes into production) are identical to the prices of outputs (what is produced): "the inputs of the production cycles currents are givens, known at the beginning of the cycle, and do not have a retroactive effect on the equalization of the rate of profit between the different sectors during that cycle. It suffices to consider that these are also calculated in production prices and not in values, but that these production prices are the result of the equalization of profit rates during the previous cycle, and all inconsistency disappears (…) raw materials, like those of all inputs used in production (…) are the result of the equalization of profit rates that took place in the previous period” (see the fragment “The problem of transformation”, translated by the author of this article). In a nutshell, the solution was thus presented. But, curiously, Mandel's position will not be followed by him: in the collective work “Ricardo, Marx, Sraffa”, he only deals with the problem of transformation from the point of view of the role of gold and money.

The trajectory of capitalism

The results of post-war capitalism (low unemployment, growth in purchasing power) went in the opposite direction to the theses about the inevitable collapse or the impoverishment of the proletariat defended by Stalinist economists. To analyze this new configuration, Mandel speaks of neo-capitalism (a term he would later reject) and began to use the idea of ​​the long wave.

Since 1963 – in his mentioned “Initiation to Marxist Economic Theory” – Mandel refers to Kondratieff and then underlines that “the long wave that started with the Second World War and which we are still in – say the wave of 1940-1965 or 1940 -1970 – was characterized, on the contrary, by expansion”. This allows for “a tendency to raise the standard of living of workers”.

There is, therefore, a clear prediction of the turnaround that will take place, which will be specified in a remarkable article published in 1964 in “Les Temps Modernes”, entitled “The apogee of neocapitalism and its future”, in which Mandel predicted the end of the expansion of after the war, which had not yet received the name "The Glorious Thirty".

With the theory of long waves, Mandel takes up the elaborations of the beginning of the 1923th century, especially those of Parvus and Trotsky. We reproduce below the original curve of Trotsky's 2 article(20) and its transcription in French. There, the key idea of ​​the theory of long waves is outlined, namely that capitalism goes through historical periods: “40 years of very gradual capitalist development (AB); 30 years of steady rise (BC); XNUMX Years of Prolonged Crisis and Decline (CD)”. Trotsky stresses that these are not cycles, as Kondratieff wrongly thinks, because “their character and duration are not determined by the internal play of capitalist forces, but by the external conditions that form the basis of their development”.

the profit rate

Mandel always referred to the classic formulation of the law of tendency for the rate of profit to decrease, which can be seen, for example, in his text “Partially Independent Variables and Internal Logic in Classical Marxist Analysis”: “the increase in composition organic capital leads to a tendency or decrease in the average rate of profit (…). In the long run, the rate of surplus value cannot rise in proportion to the rate of increase in the organic composition of capital, and most countertrends tend, at least periodically (and also in the very long run), to be, by their nature, time, superseded”.

This traditional formulation is, however, debatable, because the unquestionable increase in the physical composition of capital (the number of “machines” per worker) does not necessarily lead to an increase in the organic composition (in terms of value), because between the two there are the productivity of work. However, the long wave development process has something to do with the profit rate. But this does not mean that the expansion phase starts automatically when the rate of profit reaches a certain level. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition. The way in which the rate of profit is re-established must at the same time provide an adequate answer to other questions, which concern in particular the creation of the product.

The profit rate is, however, a good synthetic indicator of the dual temporality of capitalism, as Mandel reinforced. The establishment of a coherent productive order means maintaining it at a high and more or less “guaranteed” level. After a certain time, the interaction of the system's fundamental contradictions degrades this situation and the crisis is always and everywhere marked by a significant fall in the rate of profit.

This reflects a double inability of capitalism to reproduce the degree of exploitation of workers and to ensure the realization of goods, more than a tendency towards an increase in the organic composition of capital. This is how it seems useful to us to reformulate the law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall: the rate of profit does not continually decrease, but the mechanisms that push it downwards always end up prevailing over what Marx called counter-tendencies. The return is endogenous, so the demand for a restructuring of the productive order periodically reappears.

In any case, Mandel never made this law the alpha and omega of explaining the crisis. In the chapter of his book “A Crise: 1974-1982”, dedicated to this issue, Mandel lists the causes invoked by various Marxist schools: “The over-accumulation of capital? Undoubtedly (…). The under-consumption of the masses? Undoubtedly (…) The anarchy of production and the disproportion between the different branches? Undoubtedly (…). The fall in the rate of profit? Undoubtedly". As for this last approach, he clarifies: “but not in the mechanistic sense of the term, which suggests a rectilinear causal chain”. Mandel clearly rejects any monocausal explanation of the crisis and, in particular, the downward trend in the rate of profit which, for some Marxists, is a guarantee of orthodoxy.

What wave are we on?

It is logical that we ask ourselves the question of where we are. Our answer is that we are still in the long wave recession that started with the generalized recession of 1974-75 and then got into gear with the recession of 1981-82. This requires some clarification.

The first is that Mandel's theory never postulated that each long wave should last between 25 and 30 years. This has of course been more or less the case in the past, but that doesn't mean it should be the rule, simply because long waves are not cycles. It is absolutely necessary to reject this mistaken assimilation, which appears, for example, in the writings of Robert Boyer, one of the two founders of the so-called school of regulation: “we cannot be satisfied with the rather mechanical interpretation proposed by ND Kondratief, recently taken up by E. Mandel, who represents the history of capitalism as the succession of waves of strong accumulation and then of weak accumulation, lasting approximately a quarter of a century (...). No teleological principle makes it possible to guarantee either the mechanical succession of ascending and then descending phases, nor the automatic passage from a mainly extensive accumulation regime to a mainly intensive accumulation regime”.(3)

This is a serious misreading that must be compared with what Mandel explained in the first version of his book on long waves, in 1980: “the appearance of a new long shock wave cannot, therefore, be considered as an endogenous – more or less spontaneous, mechanical, autonomous – product of the previous long shock wave, whatever its duration and severity. It is not the laws of capitalism's development, but the results of the class struggle over an entire historical period that determine this decisive turnaround.

In other words, our thesis is the following: historical development passes through a dialectic of objective and subjective factors, in which subjective factors are characterized by a relative autonomy. They are not directly and inevitably predetermined by what has gone before in terms of fundamental trends in capital accumulation, trends in technological change, or the impact of these trends on the process of work organization itself”.

Or summing up: “long waves are more than simple upward or downward movements in the growth rate of capitalist economies. They are, in the deepest sense of the word, specific historical periods.

It is from this point of view that we must analyze the trajectory of capitalism since the turn of the 1980s. It is true that the rate of profit recovered, at least until the 2008 crisis, but that is not enough. In fact, nothing is more foreign to the theory than the postulation that it is enough to reach a certain level of profitability to start a new expansion phase. What is new is that this recovery in the rate of profit (with which some Marxist authors disagree) was not accompanied by a resumption of accumulation, growth or productivity gains. This last point is, in our opinion, of the utmost importance: the slowdown or even the exhaustion of productivity gains is the most significant indicator of a loss of capital dynamism.

Now, these productivity gains are possible thanks to the introduction of significant technological innovations. In long wave theory, there is an organic link between the succession of long waves and that of scientific and technical revolutions, but this relationship cannot be reduced to a vision inspired by Schumpeter, in which innovation would be in itself the key to the opening of a new long wave.

From this point of view, the changes linked to new technologies undoubtedly constitute a new “technical-economic paradigm”, but this is not enough to found a new expansive phase. This is precisely the secular stagnation debate, which is based on the observation that significant innovations in all areas do not generate productivity gains.

the automation

Some people imagine that new technologies have the potential to increase productivity, which would also mean a huge reduction in employment. Assuming that this prognosis is true, one would have to ask about the social model associated with these transformations. On this point, it is worth mentioning a key text by Mandel, written in 1986: “Marx, the current crisis and the future of human work”.

Mandel presents a very pessimistic – but rather premonitory – picture of the effects of capitalist automation, evoking the perspective of a “dual society that would divide the current proletariat into two antagonistic groups”: those who continue to participate in the surplus value production process, that is, in the capitalist production process (with a tendency to reduce wages); those who are excluded from this process, and who survive by any means other than selling their labor power to the capitalists or to the bourgeois state: social security, an increase in “independent” activities, part-time peasants or artisans, a return to domestic work, “ludic” communities, etc., and who buy capitalist commodities without producing them. A transitory form of marginalization of the 'normal' productive process is found in precarious work, part-time work, undeclared work, forms that particularly affect women, young people, immigrants, etc.

Mandel and the coronavirus

This anachronism is deliberate: with it we intend to underline the fact that the interest of Mandel's economic works lies not only in the analyzes they provide, but also in the methodological tools they provide. That's why reading, or rereading, it continues to be useful a quarter of a century after Mandel's disappearance. Long wave theory is largely based on the distinction between endogenous factors (which refer to the “normal” functioning of the system and its internal contradictions) and exogenous factors (which are, to some extent, external to the system).

Mandel dedicated a large part of his reflections to this distinction, and we refer here to the text by Francisco Louçã, “Ernest Mandel et la pulsation de l'histoire”(4). But this discussion continues to be current. Should we or should we not consider the coronavirus crisis as an exogenous crisis? In a recent article(5), Philippe Légé answers this question positively.

Not all the exogenous shocks inflicted on capitalism give it, however, the possibility of jumping into a new expansive phase. Naturally, capitalism will have to react by returning to a way of business as usual. Your goal, of course, will be to restore the profit rate, as that is your only barometer. Freezing or cutting wages and social expenses, accelerated automation, reduction of manpower: it is already clear where the recovery is headed. But these reactions, which are to some extent a reflection of capitalism, will by no means attenuate the contradictions that already existed before the outbreak of the crisis.

Once again, we must resort to Mandel's contribution: for an expansive wave to be generated, it is not enough to recover the rate of profit or for technological innovations to appear. A production order must be established to ensure the reproduction conditions of the system. However, these conditions do not now exist for a reason that is essential, from our point of view, namely, the exhaustion of productivity gains. Without being able to recover what is its driving force and source of relative legitimacy, capitalism is condemned to an unstable and fundamentally antisocial reproduction. This was true before the coronavirus. It is even more true afterwards.

* Michel Husson is a researcher at Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES). Author, among other books, of A pure capitalism (Page deux).

Translation: Antonio Jose Andre for

Originally published in L'Encontre.


(1) References to Mandel texts (in most cases) with the respective links, can be found on the following page: is external). Texts in French, English and Spanish.

(2) Léon Trotsky, “La courbe du développement capitaliste”, 1923 ; Critiques de l'économie politique, n° 20, avril-juin 1975.

(3) Robert Boyer, “The crisis actuelle: une mise en perspective historique”, Critiques de l'Economie Politique, new series n°7-8, 1979.

(4) Published in Actuel Marx-PUF (Paris, February 1999) entitled “The Marxism of Ernest Mandel” with texts by various authors and directed by Gilbert Achcar: is external) (Press Correspondence Editor)

(5) Philippe Légé, “A mixed crisis aux décisive consequences”, June 2020.


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